Refugee-to-refugee humanitarianism

The realities of care-giving belie the assumption that male refugees, especially those from Muslim backgrounds, pose an inherent threat to Europe.

Oska Paul
20 November 2018


Refugees in Athens, 2018. Credit: Photograph provided by research participant to author. All rights reserved.

The scale of forced displacement to Greece is well-documented, having reached unprecedented levels for any European Union (EU) country in 2015. Three years later, and despite significant spending, many of the global humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR and the European Union continue to show insufficient interest in providing meaningful support. This is evidenced by the horrendous reception conditions for refugees still arriving and residing in Greece.

However, alongside this neglect, a network of alternative, grassroots humanitarian initiatives have blossomed, with the aim of providing assistance to displaced persons in more egalitarian ways. The emergence of these ‘solidarity’ initiatives can be linked to larger social mobilisations of the Left since 2011, as well as to growing demands to support the material needs of refugees since 2015.

Greek solidarity movements have rightly received much public, political and academic attention over the last five years, most of it positive. During this period, a remarkable amount of material and financial donations have arrived from across the world, as well as many international volunteers. Yet one key humanitarian figure is missing from almost all of these discussions: refugees who themselves are volunteering in response to displacement.

In many organisations in Athens, young single refugee men and women are active in the delivery of care services. These include free dental and medical care, social pharmacies, youth centres, language and business training, and community kitchens and clothes shops among other things. Yet despite the visible presence and contribution of refugees in Athens they are rarely represented in official discussions and publications, unlike volunteers from the global North such as myself. This bias triggered my own interest in how, if at all, refugees perceive themselves as ‘humanitarians’ and their participation as volunteers more generally.

While it is widely-acknowledged that gender relations undergo processes of change during forced displacement, attention to male-specific forms of social identity in exile remains relatively rare. In general, there has been little engagement with refugee men as subjects who experience and respond positively to the implications of the injustices they face. Most analyses tend to assume that normative power dynamics between men and women are disrupted and renegotiated as a result of either the diminished socio-economic standing of refugee men or the ‘emancipation’ of refugee women in the host countries of the global North.

These discourses promote and sustain highly gendered and racialised understandings of who it is that needs to be ‘secured,’ both in terms of those who are perceived as helpless victims in need of ‘saving’ (i.e. women and children), and those who are seen to pose a potential threat (i.e. ‘Other’ men). In Greece, refugee men experience this representational discrimination through their systematic exclusion from the humanitarian care and assistance that is provided by both the state and independent organisations, irrespective of their needs. In spite of such marginalisation, many of these men choose to support other refugees in both less and more fortunate situations than themselves, and often without any immediate benefit to their own precarious lives.

In this context, acknowledging the humanitarian action of young refugee men is significant, not only in foregrounding their attempts to redefine the terms of their own inclusion in humanitarian responses to displacement, but also in challenging suspicions in Europe that such men pose an inherent threat.

In the summer of 2018, I conducted research with ten male refugee-volunteers, who, being both young and single, are typically the target of anti-immigration policies and sentiment. All of these men are currently volunteering in different organisations across Athens, having fled their countries of origin for a variety of different reasons.

Nassif, for example, left Syria in 2015. A few months after he first arrived in Athens, he helped to establish several squats in Exarchia: a neighbourhood known for its activism and anarchism. Many of these squats are run by refugees themselves and provide alternative solutions to the city’s housing crisis, since - despite the existence of numerous abandoned buildings - asylum-seekers, refugees and even citizens are homeless. As a humanitarian who has experienced the effects of forced displacement, Nassif emphasised the importance of the “unsaid connection” he shares with other displaced people, a connection expressed by all of my interviewees. Mohammed, for example, who coordinates a mobile medical team that operates across Athens, explained to me that as refugees:

“We have been through a long journey of awful things happening, and we share the same experience through this. It gets you closer to the refugees - Pakistani, Algerian, Nigerian, whatever. This makes it much, much easier…to define, locate or give the right support.”

Nassif and Mohammed’s experiences highlight the ways in which refugees’ collective enactments create a sense of belonging that is rooted in forces beyond traditional paradigms of language, culture and nation. Despite different experiences of displacement, a shared sense of precariousness in exile provides the spur for refugees’ humanitarian action. In this sense, refugee humanitarianism not only responds to immediate needs but is also embedded in reciprocal exchanges beyond material or rights-based assistance.

For example Nour, a former sea captain from Syria, told me that this connection enables him to assist the younger boys he works with as a social worker at a youth centre more effectively than Western volunteers:

“These boys have not seen their family in five years, maybe, six. When he starts to cry, you will cry also…you cry together, you want to hold him, you want to tell them ‘we are together.’ That’s built a lot of relationships.”

On the other hand, hearing other refugees’ stories of conflict, cruelty and displacement is also seen as the greatest challenge of volunteering as a refugee. In response to such challenges, many men spoke of developing a greater capacity for expressing tenderness, vulnerability and care in order to negotiate the complex and difficult emotions involved in the humanitarian encounter more effectively.

One of my other interviewees from Afghanistan, Pezhvak, was homeless for a long time whilst volunteering in a legal support team which, among other things, helps people to find accommodation. He told me that one-to-one legal assessments “[are] really tough, [because] you have to hear some really tough the end of this I became more strong. I had empathy, I had sensitivity.” Such expressions of care are central to the ways in which young refugee men conceive of and provide effective humanitarian assistance.

Most single refugee men in Greece have had to leave loved ones behind in dangerous or fatal situations, and they suffer as a consequence. In many ways volunteering offers them the chance to rebuild familial or familiar bonds of care and responsibility that were lost during displacement. So although volunteering poses many emotional challenges, the men I spoke to suggested that they gladly, and perhaps even gratefully, engaged in humanitarian action for such reasons. Indeed, for Hadi, another interviewee who lost his fiancé during the war in Syria, volunteering has helped him to reconstitute his own life in exile:

“When I came to Greece I was completely destroyed. I lost my fiancé in the war. This pain is hard to control. In the beginning I couldn’t control it. In the beginning I drank a lot: to forget. Exactly when I start helping other people, I controlled this pain. Volunteering helped me to control that pain a lot.”

In this way, the ability to express pain and care more readily with others who have also felt the effects of forced displacement not only shapes the ways in which refugee-volunteers support other people but also fosters more enduring ways to cope with their own grief. The success of mimicking or recreating lost familial bonds is always partial, yet the relationships that volunteering creates are significant for single refugee men and their need to care and be cared for.

It’s also important not to overlook the broader implications of establishing solidarity in humanitarian action through the particularities of co-suffering rather than the universality of rights or the mechanisms of the aid industry. But one shouldn’t overstate or romanticise the positive effects of refugee men’s volunteering practices. As Pezhvak told me, “being a volunteer has changed my mind so much. But it hasn’t changed my physical situation, because unfortunately I’m not independent, I do not have a job, I do not have my own house.”

Yet attention to the multiple ways in which caregiving is provided by refugee men - and its value for those who give and receive it - is important in helping to disrupt the growing assumption in the West that male refugees, especially those from Muslim backgrounds, are by ‘nature’ non-egalitarian, brutish, and violent. If we are to challenge the image of refugee men as incapable of responding positively to extreme social injustice, this process begins by acknowledging their own positive responses to the forced displacement of others and themselves.

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